Sam's darkroom is closed
Every revolution has its defining moment. The Chinese democracy protest of 1989 stays frozen behind a lone protester facing a column of People’s Army tanks in Tiananmen Square. South Africa’s defining moment was when police massacred protesting learners in Soweto, sparking an international outcry that created faultlines that cracked apartheid’s foundation.
The year is 1996 and I am a young journalist with a community newspaper called African Sun, which was started by Joas Mashego (no relation) and edited by Swatini national Lunga Masuku. It is small but has a huge footprint in the Bushbuckridge community that has never enjoyed an independent voice.
After writing my June 16 20th anniversary commemoration piece, I am invited to the publisher’s office. On entering I am met by Mashego, sitting with world-renowned photographer Sam Masana Nzima. I am told Nzima is about to buy his way into the newspaper and that if I join full time I am likely to be editor and have Nzima as my boss, since they are plotting to fire Masuku. I rush to request Nzima to autograph the photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubu. He gaily autographs my article and we get down to conversation.
African Sun never survived three birthdays. I parted ways with it immediately after Nzima came aboard. If my memory serves me well, Nzima was still fighting a mammoth battle to gain rights to his historic picture. The next time I met him he told me he had obtained the copyright but was unable to recoup royalties due to him for all the years the picture was used. At the time, he was back to being a photographer. He assured me he had never put down his camera but his lens had been temporarily broken by the apartheid regime.
At some stage Nzima started believing that taking photos was some form of artistic indulgence that made him feel like Pablo Picasso. While the print and online media no longer felt the need to use the photos he shot after 1994, he continued taking them and worried about how technology was eroding his beloved craft. He believed a good picture was processed in a dark room with its texture intact, not a Jpeg. Nzima felt digital methods were killing the essence of photography as an art. He didn’t like the fact that anyone could take a picture and possibly end up being celebrated as a photographer. It was that contemporary debate of print journalists disliking news bloggers.
Nzima was an old man who didn’t believe National Geographic should embrace the digital era. I doubt he supported Time’s decision to go digital.
I next met Nzima when then president Thabo Mbeki came to Bushbuckridge to open a project at Maripe High School, the alma mater of politician Mathews Phosa and businessman Reuel Khoza. He is wearing a stylish shirt modelled from his iconic picture. He is his jovial self and shares his interest in opening a photography academy in derelict rural Lillydale. I tease him about writing his biography but he tells me it’s already in the pipeline. Nzima believed he was a writer and the photojournalist in him refused to allow someone to narrate his story.
The old man made a success of his life. He tried his best to play a role in the artistic life of Bushbuckridge, especially since the formation of the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of SA. He felt that young people were not keen to embrace photojournalism and didn’t understand the power of the camera. Whenever there were government events, especially visits by national leaders, he took photos. I would later peruse newspapers and blogs, checking if any of the media had published them, but to no avail. They are probably still pegged on a line in his Lillydale darkroom, where he lived after retiring. He died at the age of 83.
Nzima won many awards, including a 2016 New York Times cover and documentary celebrating his life. And he was honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze, an accolade he revered.
I am one of those who feel Nzima was not properly used in his old age, especially by those who professed to share his vision of youth development.
Nzima had been a municipal councillor in Bushbuckridge. The area is rich with talent and ingenuity, modestly setting trends. Nzima wanted his contribution to improve the community, in the same way he moved the world forward. I have attended meetings with him and local government officials during which I felt they paid lip service to his proposals. That people only know one of his pictures, while he shot thousands, is an indictment on our arts and culture authorities. I have argued that state buildings and those of state-owned enterprises should be adorned with artwork and artefacts produced by South Africans such as Nzima, sculptor Noria Mabasa, December Mpapane, Linda Shongwe, Gerard Sekoto and Dolores Fleischer, on loan to facilitate their eternal revenue. I hope Nzima’s passing injects political will in to our culture authorities. We can’t have Nando’s doing better than government in honouring local painters.
Nzima leaves a rich legacy of community involvement. There is a darker lining to his life, given that for some time he owned a bottle store and in 1979 became a member of the tribal Gazankulu legislature. In our culture, we don’t talk ill of the dead; but the truth should also not be buried with the dead.
Nzima is an icon that fell. As Nelson Mandela once said: “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.” Famba uyetlela hikurhula Tatana Masana Nzima. May that ray of light illuminate us eternally.
- Mashego is a 360 Degrees Artist and political analyst based in Mapulaneng, Bushbuckridge